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The Golden Gopher Effect: Minnesota and College Football’s Chaos Theory

How one meaningless September game has changed the College Football Playoff

Rodrick Williams Jr. of the Minnesota Golden Gophers finds the hole against the University of Iowa Hawkeyes in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 8th, 2014.

Rodrick Williams Jr. of the Minnesota Golden Gophers finds the hole against the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.

Adam Bettcher/Getty

The Minnesota Golden Gophers have won seven games this season and lost only two, and this should be an empirically good thing. Nobody roots against the Gophers, because rooting against the Gophers after decades of vexing mediocrity would be like heaping scorn on a Muppet.

So look, I’m happy for Minnesota. How could you not be, given the health-related travails of their head coach, given that they haven’t played in a Rose Bowl since the Cuban Missile Crisis, given that their mascot is an adorable bucktoothed rodent? I hope they keep winning. I hope they take a wrecking ball to the infrastructure of the Big Ten over the next few weeks. I don’t think this is a controversial stance. But what’s fascinating about the Gophers is that the indirect effect of their success is far more controversial than the success itself.

Here’s what I’m talking about: On September 13, the Texas Christian Horned Frogs blasted the Gophers, 30-7. This did not seem like a valuable victory at the time; at that moment, Minnesota was 2-0, with wins over Eastern Illinois and Middle Tennessee. But then it turned out that Minnesota was a solid team, at least by Big Ten standards, and TCU’s win started to look better. Good enough, in fact, that in the most recent College Football Playoff standings, the Horned Frogs (8-1) were afforded the fourth and final spot, making them the highest-ranked Big 12 school.

And the second-highest-ranked Big 12 school? That would be Baylor (also 8-1), which, to be fair, played a non-conference schedule replete with tackling dummies. Baylor’s best non-conference game was on the road against Buffalo, a Mid-American Conference team whose coach was fired mid-season. In theory, then, given that the Big 12 has only 10 teams and no championship game, and given that each Big 12 team therefore plays the same nine-game conference schedule, it would make sense that TCU has been afforded the benefit of the doubt ahead of Baylor.

Except for one minor problem: On October 11, TCU played Baylor. And TCU lost to Baylor, 61-58.

Here’s what the playoff committee appears to be saying, at least in this case: Strength of schedule matters more than head-to-head results. And this is a dangerous precedent to set. Because when sorting through the inherent political gridlock of college football, what can be controlled by the players on the field should hold more weight than what can’t be controlled. And one thing the players cannot control is scheduling.

I mean, I get the strength-of-schedule argument. I think it’s important, in terms of driving more competitive early-season matchups in future years. I think it’s fair to say that Baylor copped out (and it appears they may continue to cop out). But I also think you can make the case that TCU was essentially trying to cop out, too. When the Horned Frogs agreed to a home-and-home series with Minnesota, it was May of 2013. The Gophers were coming off a 6-7 season in which they won two Big Ten games, and defeated a weak Western Michigan team 28-23; by comparison, Buffalo was 4-8 in 2012 and defeated Western Michigan 29-24. This was not an attempt by TCU to truly boost its non-conference schedule – this was an attempt to secure a relatively easy victory over a major-conference opponent, which I suppose trumps Baylor’s thrashing of a MAC team, but not by enough to trump a head-to-head result.

All of this would be much simpler, of course, if the Gophers were just the Gophers we’ve come to know, a floundering squad in a mediocre conference clinging to their Quixotic quest for swine-shaped hardware. But that’s not the case. Minnesota is a decent football team – albeit a decent football team that somehow lost to Illinois – and therefore, Minnesota has now made the case for TCU. Which means that Minnesota is making the case for the decisions of athletic directors over the actions of the players on the field.

It shouldn’t be this complicated. I should be able to pull for the Gophers in peace, without feeling cognitive dissonance. But this is what college football does. Did you know the Gophers are called the Gophers because of an association with “shifty railroad barons?” Every time you think you’ve stumbled upon some innocent fun, this sport manages to make you feel outraged about it.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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